By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Four months later, managers of the Publix on West Avenue found "kill fags" and "die fags" scrawled in the store elevator.
In the predawn hours of New Year's Day 2003, an effeminate 23-year-old named Earnest Robinson was leaving Twist when two straight clubgoers rolled up in a car. They assumed he was a woman and made a pass at him. When they realized he was a man, one shouted a slur and the other shot him in the shoulder. Police later arrested Adrian Miller and Billy Ledan and charged them with attempted murder. Miller was convicted; Ledan's case was dropped to a misdemeanor.
It's surprising when you consider South Beach's heyday as a sparkling gay playground, where oiled-up boys frolicked between wild foam parties and the hub of hedonism that was the Versace mansion. Nobody thought twice about casual sex in Flamingo Park or flamboyant public fashion shoots, and — at its peak — MTV was even there to glamorize it all.
Gay transplants morphed Miami Beach from a sleepy little island into Rio de Janeiro with an edge. There was a sense of easy living and infinite possibility. But most of that has vanished. Rents spiked, gays moved out, and tourists flocked in. Clubs that once hosted thousands of men per night have closed, replaced by hip-hop venues. It's the nightlife equivalent of erecting a mosque next to a temple.
Meanwhile, a bigger scene has emerged 25 miles north. In Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors, gay entertainers find work more easily, queer yuppies can afford spacious homes, and transgendered ladies feel safer walking to the corner store. South Beach, they explain, has grown tense.
Says former Miami Beach Commissioner Victor Diaz: "I don't think police realize the degree to which there has been an alarming increase of these types of incidents on South Beach."
Shelley Novak, a cross-dresser who has performed in Miami Beach since 1989, is more blunt. "I won't walk alone in drag anymore," she says. "You can't go out at night without some thug yelling, 'Show me your pussy!' "
The migration to Broward County began in the late '90s, when aging gay men noticed a family-oriented town of 11,800 called Wilton Manors. The vice mayor was openly gay, people smiled at each other on the street, and living was cheap: A two-bedroom bungalow sold for about $70, 000. Eventually, rainbow flags emerged in storefront windows, and more than 15 gay-owned businesses opened in a span of 18 months.
Meanwhile, property values in South Beach tripled between 1995 and 2000. Renters could live in a one-bedroom Wilton Manors apartment for about half of what it cost in South Beach.
As Fort Lauderdale moved away from its raucous spring-break image, city officials took note of the new demographic. Gays and lesbians — most of whom are childless — had extra money to spend. So the town began to court gay club owners with this offer: Set up shop where parking is easier, leases are cheaper, and tourists are everywhere.
Gays and lesbians who fled north sought one thing: a place that feels more like a home than a discotheque. Elsa Austrich — a 46-year-old Venezuelan-born office administrator — moved from Miami to Fort Lauderdale a few years ago. A small and friendly woman, she holds hands with her partner, Veronica, outside Halo Lounge on a recent Thursday. "You come to South Beach to party," she explains. "But in Fort Lauderdale, there is a strong feeling of community. It's like San Francisco."
Kai Garcia, a 39-year-old flight attendant, traded the clubs for gay bingo nights and queer flea markets in Broward. "I didn't see South Beach as a place to settle down," he says. "There is no sense of intimacy." Although Garcia spent his 20s and 30s living in a one-bedroom South Beach apartment and rollerblading to the ocean, he bought a spacious two-bedroom condo overlooking a golf course for $78,000 in Hollywood last year.
Adds longtime gay club promoter Edison Farrow: "We're not just living in a three-block radius anymore."
For gay performers too, it's easier to pay the bills in Fort Lauderdale. Shelley Novak, for example, once afforded rent with just tips from her South Beach show. After the scene dried up, she began waiting tables — minus the wig. Daisy Deadpetals doesn't have that problem. She pays the mortgage on her Pompano Beach home using money earned from drag gigs in Broward.
Luis Ortiz was nervous as he arrived at his ex-boyfriend's apartment. Why, he wondered, hadn't his lover turned friend answered the phone in three days? This wasn't like him.
It was just after 5 p.m. August 29, 2004, a few blocks from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. As he entered the rundown building, something didn't seem right. Outside apartment number seven, stereo cables were strewn about, and there was an eerie quietness.
He knocked loudly on the door, and when nobody answered, he frantically kicked it in. Inside the studio apartment, past a small kitchen, he saw it: the lifeless body of Henser Leiva on the floor.
The gay lounge singer had been stripped naked and bound by his wrists and ankles with shredded bed sheets. Someone had gagged him — friends say with his own underwear — and left him to die. There was "trauma around his neck area," according to court documents, "from his shoulders up."